A family-friendly tour that will take in many of Britain’s most picturesque rural estates, it’s hard to believe that James Stone’s glorious adaptation of Anna Sewell’s Victorian classic is Black Beauty’s first canter into theatre.
A scene from Black Beauty Photo: Simon Dewhurst
Charged with the daunting task of bringing our equine friends to life, without drawing comparisons to West End success War Horse, Hayley Neil deserves huge design plaudits for her original feat of costume engineering.
As with the rest of the cast when called upon, star stallion Simeon John-Wake masters Neil’s innovative sculptured horse-head harness, capturing all the essential equine mannerisms throughout Beauty’s emotional journey. His booming narrative fills the outdoor venue, delivering storytelling full of clarity.
A sprinkling of humour exists predominantly in the form of Nicki Willetts’ troublesome Scouse nag Ginger and Jamie Osborn’s splendidly spiffing aristocratic Lord Falmouth. For villainous elements, look no further than Simon Kingsley’s wonderfully grotesque drunkard Reuben and David Peel’s mean miner Skinner.
While remaining faithful to the 1877 text, Stone’s historically accurate new strand is justified, with a frenetic Epsom Derby race that will have you on tenterhooks. Re-enactments of past Crimean War recollections and an audience-engaging auction are equally abundant in tension.
As evening falls, darkness becomes an ally to the set, adding realism to scenes of bleak Victorian London and the grim existence of the suffocating candle-lit mine. This is all a far cry from the idyllic Birtwick Park stables of earlier on.
Sorry Joey, Black Beauty has re-emerged from the stables and is very much a dark horse for open-air production of the summer. There’s no chance of anyone bolting early here.